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With: "Beat" Takeshi, Ryuhei Matsuda, Tadanobu Asano, Yoichi Sai, Shinji Takeda
Written by: Nagisa Oshima, based on novellas by Ryotaro Shiba
Directed by: Nagisa Oshima
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 12/18/1999

Taboo (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Way of the Samurai

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Master Japanese director Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses) has been missing in action since his 1986 film Max, Mon Amour. Though the 68 year-old director suffered a stroke a few years ago, he has triumphantly returned with one of the greatest Japanese films in years, directed from the seat of his wheelchair.

In Taboo (also known as Gohatto), the Shinsengumi militia recruits two new swordsmen on the same day, the bearded Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano) and the androgynous Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), with his fair skin, almond eyes, and long hair. Tashiro immediately begins wooing the stoic Kano, and soon other Samurai suitors join in the chase. The temple's leaders, Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano, credited with his acting name, "Beat" Takeshi) and Isami Kondo (Yoichi Sai)-both played by film directors, incidentally-reflect on who might and who might not "have leanings" in that direction. Hijikata pits Kano against Tashiro in the ring and--though Kano is a far superior swordsman--Kano loses. Hijikata therefore deduces that the two men are "involved."

Oshima doesn't provide many specifics as to who is sleeping with whom. Instead he creates an atmosphere of destructive desire. We only ever see Kano sleeping with one man (who promptly dies). The militia leaders themselves remain aggravatingly unclear on their own motivations. In a series of scenes, Hijikata orders one Samurai to take Kano to a brothel so that he can "feel a woman's touch" for the first time. Tellingly, Oshima doesn't show us the sequence in which Kano supposedly throws a fit and leaves without any sexual gratification.

Taboo encompasses a number of genres. It's a Samurai film, a homosexual love tangle, a costume drama based on history, and a Takeshi Kitano film. But though the film is highly enjoyable on its own, it does help to have a little background. The Shinsengumi militia, whose job it was to protect the Shoguns, reigned supreme for only about three years, following a victorious battle in 1864 and before their downfall at the Meiji Restoration. Taboo takes place during that three-year period. In this light, Kano's joining the militia can be viewed as the beginning of the end.

The film also weaves the Japanese Cult of bishonen or "beautiful boy" into its colorful threads. The beautiful boy (represented by Kano) goes back a long way and is as familiar in Japanese culture as the vampire is here. The beautiful boy's beauty and innocence is, by nature, short-lived and therefore reminds us of death. Paradoxically, it's the men attracted to the beautiful boy who ruin him.

To this end, the film begins and climaxes with Kano performing acts of violence. First, he is asked to behead a criminal Samurai as an initiation rite (much to the jealous chagrin of Tashiro). And at the end, Kano and Tashiro battle in an attempt to put an end to the emotional entanglements that have turned the militia upside down.

The film, shot mostly on sound stages in Kyoto, becomes increasingly stylized and less realistic as it moves along. The final two scenes take place in a misty bog reminiscent of Kenji Mizoguchi's brilliant ghost story Ugetsu (1953). (One character tells a story from the source material of Ugetsu, in a kind of tribute.) This stays true to Oshima's idea of keeping specific details vague and turning the story into myth.

The film's final image beautifully concludes the proceedings. Following the Kano and Tashiro's fight, Hijikata cleaves a young cherry tree in two and watches it fall. Though the act takes place in a wide shot, we can't see Takeshi's face very well but we know what it must look like, grim and purposeful. The blossom-covered cherry tree represents both fragile youth and death, the same as Kano.

Throughout Taboo, Oshima allows us to hear Kitano's thoughts on the soundtrack, making him the center of the story despite all the attention lavished upon Kano. In a recent interview Oshima stated that Kitano has grown uglier since their first collaboration on Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and is therefore more interesting to look at.

It's clear that Oshima identifies with Kitano's character in the story, the old warrior and the last of a dying breed. We're lucky to have this latest gift from master Oshima.

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